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The Nation

America's Not Ready to Make Nice

Introduced by folk-singing legend Joan Baez as "three brave women," the Dixie Chicks took the stage at the 49th annual Grammy Awards ceremony to sing their no-apologies for dissenting anthem: "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Baez, a veteran anti-war campaigner encouraged the crowd to "please listen closely'' to the words of the song the Texas trio penned in response to efforts by conservative politicians and commentators to destroy the group's career after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London crowd on the eve of the invasion of Iraq: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.''

At the time, Maines's words represented a dangerous dissent from the heavily-spun status quo that said that invading and occupying Iraq was a good idea – and that Bush was a capable leader taking his country in a necessary direction. After Maines spoke up in March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks found themselves labeled "traitors." Their music knocked off radio playlists nationwide and their CDs were rubbished at events organized by media outlets that once embraced the band. The trio faced threats not just to their livelihoods but to their lives.

Instead of backing down, they responded with a passionate embrace of freedom of speech, and a push back at Bush and his acolytes that culminated in defiant songs such as "Shut Up and Sing" and "Not Ready to Make Nice." The latter tune declared: "I'm not ready to make nice, I'm not ready to back down, I'm still mad as hell…"

Maines is not the only one who is mad now. The realization that Bush lied the country into an unwise and unnecessary war – along with the recognition that the war has degenerated into a quagmire of nightmarish proportions – has made mainstream America every bit as embarrassed by Bush as the singer from Texas was four years ago.

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans now disapprove of Bush.

At the same time, record sales show that the vast majority of Americans approve of the Dixie Chicks. While the Dixie Chicks maintained much of their popularity even as they were being attacked by the right, they are today every bit as "on top" of the music scene as they were before Maines dared to dissent.

The album that contains "Not Ready to Make Nice" went to No. 1 on the charts last year, and remains a strong seller.

And, on Sunday night, the band that was once shunned by many in the music industry as "dangerous" did not just perform a triumphal rendition of their fight-back song.

The Dixie Chicks picked up five Grammies, including awards for best song, best record and album of the year.

When the history of the Bush presidency is written, it will be remembered by honest observers that there was always opposition to this president and his war. Despite the White House claims that everyone was behind the president when he sent U.S. troops into Iraq, the fact is that millions of Americans said "no." And some of them did so at great risk to their careers and fortunes.

The Grammy Awards offer recognition of that courage – as well as the talent of three remarkably able musicians. They also recognize that the willingness of a few good citizens to exercise their Constitutional rights even in an era of oppressive spin eventually taught the great mass of Americans that it was not merely right but necessary to speak up.

As Natalie Maines said Sunday night: "I think people are using their freedom of speech tonight with all these awards."

She's got a point. The Grammy Awards are, first and foremost, celebrations of the music. But, this year, they were also celebrations of basic liberties and those who chose to employ them in the face of threats from the frightened little men who told not just the Dixie Chicks but every American who dared dissent to "Shut Up and Sing."

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Surging into Hell

So far, what exactly is surging in Iraq?

US casualties, which are at a post-invasion high: According to an Associated Press analysis, more American troops were "killed in combat in Iraq over the past four months--at least 334 through Jan. 31--than in any comparable stretch since the war began"; and February, with 34 American deaths in its first nine days, is exceeding this pace. These loses are largely due to roadside bombs (IEDs) and to the fact that U.S. troops are now engaged in almost continuous urban warfare. Before the invasion of Iraq, the possibility of fighting an urban war in the Iraqi capital's streets and alleys was the American high command's personal nightmare. Now, it's their reality--and the President's surge plan can only make it more nightmarish.

Downings of U.S. helicopters, six in less than three weeks: With road travel, even in convoys, now so dangerous, thanks to IEDs, the helicopter has been a transport workhorse for the U.S. military in Iraq. The sudden surge in downed helicopters raises the specter of new tactics by the insurgents as well as the possibility that they have new, advanced missiles in their hands. It raises a warning flag of the first order. Let's not forget that the beginning of the end of the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s came when CIA-supplied Stinger missiles began to take down Russian helicopters in significant numbers.

Iraqi and American no-shows: The first Iraqi Army units promised by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the beginning of the February surge in the capital have shown up. But as with everything involving that Green Zone government and Iraqi forces generally, there is a catch: The initial Iraqi brigades are evidently at only 55-65% troop strength. Undoubtedly, these no-shows are Kurds and Shiites who didn't want to leave their home areas to fight in Baghdad. In addition, according to McClatchy's Tom Lasseter, who went out on patrol with Iraqi forces in Baghdad recently, despite the $15.4 billion the American military has so far poured into "standing them up," they are militia-infiltrated, incompetent, and exceedingly corrupt. Nor have most American troops designated to surge into Baghdad arrived yet. Louise Roug of the Los Angeles Times estimates that only 20% of the promised surge forces, Iraqi and American--about 5,000 troops in all--have even made it to the capital. (The fifth and final American brigade in this plan isn't scheduled to arrive until May!) In the meantime, senior American diplomats, voting with their analytic feet, are resisting taking posts in Iraq, assignments which, unlike military personnel, they are not obliged to accept. (They are evidently doing so on the same basic what-the-hell-am-I-going-there-for principle as the Kurdish and Shiite troops.)

Iraqi refugees: One out of every seven Iraqis has by now "fled his or her home or sought refuge abroad," reports the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "Every day," according to McClatchy's Warren Strobel, "violence displaces an estimated 1,300 more Iraqis in the country; every month, at least 40,000." According to UN officials, in surging Iraq, things are only expected to worsen. "The UNHCR projects that the number of internally displaced in Iraq could grow to about 2.7 million by year's end." An in-depth assessment conducted by the International Medical Corps, a humanitarian organization, suggests that "over one million residents of Baghdad could be driven from their homes in the next six months if Iraq's sectarian violence continues at its current level." That would be a surge indeed.

The devastation of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad: Some of these are being turned into ghost areas, as Ilana Ozernoy and Ali Hamdani indicate in a limited survey of one street in a Sunni area of the capital that appeared recently in the Atlantic. Other accounts seem to verify this. For instance, New York Times reporter Damien Cave, in a piece on how the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City is beginning to thrive under the protection of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and with reconstruction money from the Maliki government, comments in passing that, in contrast, "middle-class Sunni enclaves are withering into abandoned ghettos, starved of government services."

Massive publicity about the details of the slow-to-happen surge operation: These have been offered copiously by the supposedly security-conscious Bush administration, giving Sunnis and Shiites opportunity to prepare both defenses and evasions. It has meant, according to early American military assessments, that in the first search operations in key neighborhoods, they are finding little or nothing. ("'I don't know if it's bad information, bad intelligence, of if they knew we were coming and left,' said Capt. Isaac Torres of the Army's 3rd Brigade Stryker Combat Team. ‘They were all dry holes.'")

Oh, as for the surge plan itself, Michael Schwartz at Tomdispatch.com points out that the President's new surge plan has already been tested in the last few weeks in an offensive that began on Baghdad's Haifa Street, adjacent to the Green Zone, a day before Bush officially announced his plan and was found to be most successful -- in further depopulating the capital's Sunni neighborhoods as well as creating more destruction, greater sectarian violence, and new levels of animosity. His is a devastating piece on another bit of Bush administration planning that takes us right through the "gates of hell."

Circling the Square

The day before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president in Springfield, I was having breakfast in Chicago with my friend Paul Smith. Paul's what might be called an Obama "early adopter." Like a lot of young, Chicago progressives, he threw himself into Obama's senate candidacy when he was just a long-shot in a crowded primary field. In fact, Paul and I first met at an Obama fundraiser in the fall of 2003. So few donors had bought tickets for the event that a mutual friend on the campaign asked us to show up just to fill the room.

Over breakfast we talked about Obama's impending announcement. Paul was preparing to drive down with me on Saturday to watch the speech in person, but feeling ambivalent about the candidate himself. "I can't quite figure out where to plant my flag on him," he said. "I was looking back at my blog from 2004 and the posts I wrote about him and I was so completely committed to him and so convinced he was special and wanted to convince others. And now, I just, I can't quite get back to that. I want to recapture it, but I can't remember what it was."

In the car-ride down to Springfield on Saturday, we were also joined by our friend Dan, another early supporter. He met Obama through a mutual friend around the same time Paul became involved with the campaign. He donated money, organized friends, and became close with many of the campaign staff. I asked Dan if he shared Paul's doubts. "I have issues," he said with a frown. "He's so fucking coy. I mean, I love the guy, but there are things that really matter to me, and they've got to really matter to him. And it's not clear to me right now that they do."

This sentiment is pretty widely shared among the Chicago progressives I know. Many have grown disillusioned with a man they once thought was one of their own and now seems in danger of becoming just another politician. Part of this can be chalked up to a kind of punk-rock-band-gone-MTV disaffection. People who were into Obama when he was an underground, authentic phenomenon aren't necessarily so into the slickly produced, more pop-friendly version.

But then, music can be both really predictable and really popular, and the same is true of politicians. When I talked to people on Saturday, who'd come out on a freezing February morning to stand in the cold and hear a speech they recited, with an almost unsettling fidelity, the campaign's own buzzwords: A college student from downstate said she liked Obama because he was from a "different generation," and that she'd decided to come to "be part of history." A recovering Republican grandmother said she admired Obama because he was "fresh" and two middled-age men with Obama t-shirts spent several minutes telling a Chinese news crew that Obama was a "uniter not a divider." The reporter kept pushing the two men to name specific examples of this quality, but they just kept repeating the point.

Having it both ways, attempting to be at once a progressive champion and an ideological cipher, has become the hallmark of the Obama rhetorical strategy, but there are still so many circles this campaign is trying to square, you wonder if it can last. On the one hand, Obama wants to present his campaign as something more than a campaign, a kind of grassroots, people-powered movement. "That's why I'm in this race," he said Saturday, "Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation." When people like Paul and Dan and others were working on Obama's senate campaign in 2004, that's how it felt. But now he's running for president at a moment in history when the national media rewards the kind of air-tight focus and message discipline that are not exactly what actual grassroots movements are known for producing. So as people entered the square outside the old state capitol in Springfield, security confiscated any home-made signs (all they need is one off-message slogan -- "Destroy The Zionist State!" -- in the frame to cause a week of headaches.) But inside the entrance to the plaza, someone, most likely the campaign, distributed ersatz homemade signs with slogans like "Barack the Vote!" and "Vote 4 Obama" all painted with the same multi-colored palette.

Then there's the other major contradiction of the campaign, the fact that it is simultaneously promising two things -- progress and unity -- that have an uncomfortable relationship to each other. In his speech, Obama recited moments in American history when politics became something more than the mundane mechanics of governing and effected a true transformation of the polity: the civil war, the New Deal, the civil rights movement. But the problem is that those were moments not of unity, but of extreme polarization. The South only granted rights to black citizens under force of arms, armies of unruly war veterans gathered in Washington DC during the Great Depression to demand the government provide them with a safety net, and when Martin Luther King Jr went marching through the South, he was met with batons and firehoses and accusations that he was dividing people and stirring up trouble.

Standing on the site of where Abraham Lincoln gave his "house divided" speech, Obama invoked him as a model:

"[T]he life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.He tells us that there is power in words.He tells us that there is power in conviction.That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people."

It's hard to quarrel with the sentiment. But Obama didn't mention that Lincoln was also the most hated and polarizing figure in American presidential history. Sometimes unity is the price of progress.

Fox News Goes Corporate

It's official: Rupert Murdoch is launching a new business channel that will be "more business friendly" than its competitors, namely CNBC.

As if CNBC (owned by General Electric) isn't business friendly enough. Every night Lawrence Kudlow hawks the latest supply side argument and grotesque piece of corporate welfare. Recently Maria Bartiromo, the so-called "Money Honey," came under fire after it was disclosed that she hitched rides on Citigroup jets and did promotional appearances for the company. The network, with its omnipresent stock ticker, resembles a never-ending pep rally for Wall Street.

Fox Business Channel wants to do one better. Forget Enron, Worldcom, Goldman Sachs's bonuses or Exxon Mobil's earnings, now that Democrats are in charge of Congress corporate America needs to be cheered up. The new channel will be led by Roger Ailes, the Fox News mastermind who taught Karl Rove everything he needed to know.

There used to be a time, back in the day, when great muckraking reporters like my colleague Bill Greider dominated the business pages. Hard-hitting investigative stories were standard fare. Those days are over at most newspapers and almost completely nonexistent on TV. Murdoch can once again rejoice.

Drew Gilpin Faust: Why We Love War

Drew Faust, the historian who has been named Harvard's first female president, has been praised for her "people skills," but she's also done brilliant intellectual work on a crucial question for our time: why we love war. A Civil War historian who has published five books, Faust wrote recently about why war is "history's most popular subject."

In http://muse.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/access.cgi?uri=/journals/civil_war_history/v... >an article published in 2004 in the journal Civil War History, Faust explores the place of war in American politics and culture today. War, she writes, "offers an authenticity and intensity of experience" missing elsewhere in modern society. It provides "a moment of truth," when soldiers and civilians alike "have to define their deeply held priorities and act on them."

Causation is typically the big issue for scholars and analysts who study war: explaining and interpreting, in a dispassionate way, why particular wars have been fought. And of course much of our current argument is about the reasons the Bush White House gave for going to war in Iraq.

But for ordinary people, Faust argues, what counts is not so much the analysis of causation, but rather the personal stories, the human drama of war. The fascination with war can be "almost pornographic in its combination of thrill and terror." But that doesn't mean the details of suffering and the tragedies of death are overlooked. Personal stories of suffering and death make war "a force that gives us meaning"--the phrase is the title of a book by award-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges.

Faust's interpretation helps explain the way the US responded to the 9-11 terrorist attacks with a war on Iraq. "Even a war against an enemy who had no relationship to September 11's terrorist acts would do," she notes. People supported war not just because of the rational arguments offered by the White House, but also "because the nation required the sense of meaning, intention, and goal-directedness, the lure of efficacy that war promises." It was especially necessary to restore a sense of control after the terrorism of 9-11 had "obliterated" it. The US, she concludes, "needed the sense of agency that operates within the structure of narrative provided by war."

Those who write about war, she concludes – journalists and historians – need to acknowledge the power of war stories. Their job is to create "an orderly narrative," full of purpose and significance, about events that otherwise "would be simply violence," shapeless and meaningless.

Thus we are the ones who give meaning to war – so it's up to us to come to terms with the power of war stories. "In acknowledging its attraction," she concludes, " we diminish its power" – we move from being part of the problem to part of the solution.

Harvard's last president, Larry Summers, had been a Clinton administration free trade policy wonk. By choosing as its new president a scholar whose work has so much depth and significance, the university suggests a different sense of what intellectual leadership might mean.

Obama's In, Predictably

The only thing about the launch of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy that wasn't meticulously stage managed was the weather. Outside the old statehouse in downtown Springfield, it was sunny but the thermometer hovered in the teens and even the thousands of hearty Illinois Democrats who had shown up for the "historic event" were shivering uncontrollably by the time the senator arrived with a standard-issue opening line about how, despite the cold, "I'm fired up."

Obama's announcement, which had been anticipated since he announced last month that he would be announcing this month, had all the spontaneity of a Bill O'Reilly rant about "San Francisco values." There was the predictable U2 music, the predictable Lincoln reference – "a house divided…" – and the predictable "hand-lettered" signs promising to "Barack the Vote!" Leaving no cliché unuttered, Obama reminded the crowd that his was not a campaign but "a journey."

And a long one it shall be.

The frustrating thing about Barack Obama's "improbable quest" is that very little about it seems improbable. This campaign began as exactly what it is: a calculated grab the Democratic nomination by an appealing young senator who is risking very little in the hope of achieving very much.

Obama did deliver a fine populist line addressing his relative inexperience: "Now listen, I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness -- a certain audacity -- to this announcement. I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

But even that soliloquy was woven with the point of getting in a mention of his best-selling book, The Audacity of Hope.

With the exception of the weather that accompanied it, nothing about Barack Obama's announcement was particularly invigorating.

That's not to say that the senator's launch was inept.

If anything, it was too ept, too well plotted, too reflective of the high-powered consultants who are managing one of the more interesting men ever to seek the presidency into the narrow confines occupied by every man who has ever sought the presidency.

Of course, Obama went through the motions with finesse. This is not some bumbling Biden we're talking about.

The junior senator from Illinois began by reviewing the challenges facing the country, as must any presidential candidate who is not an incumbent seeking reelection.

"All of us know what those challenges are today -- a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren't learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can," Obama said. "We know the challenges. We've heard them. We've talked about them for years."

And he talked about them some more on Saturday morning.

Obama was at his most effective in Springfield – as he was two and a half years ago while delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston – when he scored the Bush administration, and by gentle extension the so-called Democratic "opposition," of recent years.

"For the last six years we've been told that our mounting debts don't matter, we've been told that the anxiety Americans feel about rising health care costs and stagnant wages are an illusion, we've been told that climate change is a hoax, we've been told that tough talk and an ill-conceived war can replace diplomacy, and strategy, and foresight. And when all else fails, when Katrina happened, or the death toll in Iraq mounts, we've been told that our crises are somebody else's fault. We're distracted from our real failures, and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants," the senator boomed. "And as people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what's filled the void. The cynics, the lobbyists, the special interests who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we're here today to take it back. The time for that kind of politics is over. It is through. It's time to turn the page right here and right now."

But did Obama offer much of a change?

Not from a policy standpoint. His pronouncements, such as they were, sounded like Democratic regifting.

"Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age." O.K., but the rhetoric was fresher when Al Gore was peddling it in 1999.

"Let's set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let's recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability." Didn't Bill Clinton say that in 1991?

"Let's be the generation that ends poverty in America." Er, John Edwards.

And so it went.

Obama said most of the right things. And he did so with the rhetorical flourishes that distinguish him from most of the other runners in a crowded Democratic field.

But the cautious candidate broke little in the way of new ground, pushed few limits and took no risks with his announcement. He wants the troops home from Iraq by next March, but is he willing to use the power of the purse to make it happen? He wants health care for all by the end of his first presidential term, but is he talking single-payer? He wants to end poverty, but does that mean the United States is going to start redistributing wealth down to those who lack it -- as opposed to the current upward trajectory? Of are we looking at another one of those "rising-tide-raises-all-boats" scenario?

There is no question that Obama is charismatic.

The size of the crowd in Springfield was no fluke. His "rock-star" campaign will draw the largest and most enthusiastic audiences throughout this campaign.

But Obama has to offer the people more than an acknowledgement of what ails the nation that, with a few tinkers, could be delivered by any number of moderate Republicans.

If Barack Obama's campaign is going to cause the nation to shake off its slumber "and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth," as the senator promised on Saturday, this candidate must give America more than repackaged rhetoric and another U2 song. America does not need a new generation of careful politicians mounting predictable campaign. America needs a rock star who is ready to play a new song.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Choice time: Unravel Al Qaeda or Fight Iran?

So just how firmly do the Bushists want to pursue the campaign to unravel Al-Qaeda? In today's WaPo, Dafna Linzer has a story, attributed largely to unnamed but concerned administration insiders, in which she gives disturbing new information about the extent to which they have subordinated this campaign to their current push to escalate tensions with Iran.

The back-story is that, as Linzer writes,

    Since... the winter of 2001, Tehran had turned over hundreds of people to U.S. allies and provided U.S. intelligence with the names, photographs and fingerprints of those it held in custody, according to senior U.S. intelligence and administration officials. In early 2003, it offered to hand over the remaining high-value targets directly to the United States if Washington would turn over a group of exiled Iranian militants hiding in Iraq.

Some of Bush's top advisers pushed for the trade, arguing that taking custody of bin Laden's son and the others would produce new leads on al-Qaeda. They were also willing to trade away the exiles -- members of a group on the State Department's terrorist list -- who had aligned with Saddam Hussein in an effort to overthrow the Iranian government.

Officials have said Bush ultimately rejected the exchange on the advice of Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who argued that any engagement would legitimize Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism. Bush's National Security Council agreed to accept information from Iran on al-Qaeda but offer nothing in return, officials said.

Now, Linzer has learned that, in addition to Osama Bin Laden's son Saad, those in Iranian custody include al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith of Kuwait and Saif al-Adel of Egypt, both of whom are reportedly members of the "al-Qaeda operational management committee."

It is not clear to me how much the Bushists really care about the interests of that militant Iranian opposition group, the Mojahideen e-Khalq (MEK), around 3,000 or so of whose members had been in armed training camps in Iraq back in Saddam's day, and have been kept in a detention camp in Iraq under the Americans. It is important to remember that, as Linzer noted there, the MEK is still on the State Department terrorism list, in connection with some very lethal acts its members carried out inside Iran in the 1980s.

(So you'd think the US government might want to actually put on trial at least the leaders of the MEK people they have under their control in Iraq, wouldn't you? Nah... instead they have kept them there-- under conditions that may or may not at this point include their complete disarming-- as a way of keeping up the pressure on Teheran.)

You can see there, of course, the extent to which the Bushists have been willing to manipulate the quite legitimate concern people around the world have about terrorism for their own ideological ends.

What also seems clear from Linzer's article is the degree to which the top levels of the Bush administration are ready to compromise the anti-Qaeda campaign in the interests of maintaining their current campaign to isolate, encircle, and threaten Iran.

This is completely cock-eyed. Yes, Americans and others have a number of remaining concerns about Iran's behavior. (And Iranians, about ours.) But numerous diplomatic channels remain, through which all these concerns can be put on the table, fairly addressed, and resolved. If the Bushists continue with their campaign to isolate and threaten Iran, this runs the risk of unleashing not only a war between these two nations but also a tsunami of instability that will "surge" throughout the region and the world...

But even before we have reached that point, the Bushists' campaign of anti-Iran escalation has already forced many unwelcome costs onto the world community. One of these is that the anti-Qaeda campaign-- to which the Iranians have already made many significant contributions-- is being compromised. We should all be very, very concerned.

Wall Street Whining

In response to the massive loss of unionzed, relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs in the US, the barons of Wall Street (Bob Rubin, et al) generally respond with thinly veiled contempt for the knee-jerk whining of the protectionst volk. "Don't you understand?" they say, "this it the global economy and there's no reason for manufacturers to pay Americans to do the same thing the Chinese can do for 1/50th the price. Besides, what are you a racist? Don't you believe that Mexicans and Indians and Chinese should have jobs?" I'm paraphrasing here, obviously, but this is pretty standard.

So there's something deliciously ironic about listening to Wall Street bitch and moan about the fact that Wall Street is losing share of the international financial markets. So grave is the threat of New York losing its prime position, that in January Mayor Mike Bloomberg (along with Chuck Schumer) called a press conference to publicize a report issued by McKinsey consulting (which obviously has no conflict of interest in this sort of thing) that argues that in order to preserve Wall Street's pre-eminence we must do away with -- you guessed it -- excess regulation, namely Sarbanes-Oxley.

Despite the carping from the Street, Sarbanes-Oxley, as Business Week recently pointed out has succeeded at doing precisely what it was designed to do, that is produce reliable corporate reports that investors can trust in making decisions about what stocks to buy and sell. But the law's virtues aside, there's no persuasive evidence that Sarbanes-Oxley has anything to do with the recent drop in Wall Street's shares of global IPOs. As Thomas Palley argues, the more likely explanation is simply that "[f]oreign financial markets are catching up in quality of technology and regulatory governance." Why should New York be the locus for international finance? Why not let a thousand flowers bloom?

The question is whether the Democratic congress is going to be suckered by Wall Street's whining. So far, things don't look so good. Chuck Schumer, who sits on the Senate finance committee was at that Bloomberg press conference and has been making noises about weakening Sarbanes-Oxley. So here's a question for Chuck: If you change American regulatory policy with the stated intent of protecting a single American industry from foreign competition, doesn't that make you a protectionist? Or are protectionists only those who try to protect labor and not capital?

Pelosi, Planes and Partisan Propaganda

Republican apologists for the Bush administration's failed fight in Iraq and their amen corner in the media have been looking for something, anything, to distract the American public from a necessary discussion about the need to end the U.S. occupation of that country. They finally settled last week on the "scandal" involving House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's mode of transporation.

Pelosi, a California Democrat, was informed as she prepared to assume the speakership -- a position that places her third in the line of succession to the presidency -- that she could no longer travel as she previously had: on commercial airlines. She would, she was informed, have to fly as former Speaker Dennis Hastert had on a secure Air Force plane. So it was that, upon becoming speaker, Pelosi accepted her new circumstance and agreed to use a military plane with a fuel capacity that would allow for cross-country travel without stops.

That's not exactly the stuff of scandal. But, after an apparent "leak" from the Bush administration's Department of Defense to the White House-friendly Washington Times newspaper, the Times last week ran a story headlined: "Pelosi's Power Trip -- Non-stop Nancy Seeks Flight of Fancy."

Fox News jumped on the story, followed by other cable networks. The Republican National Committee stoked it with emails to reporters and briefing papers supposedly exposing Pelosi's imperial style -- and ambitions. The predictable Sean Hannity declared that Pelosi "thinks she's the president" -- seemingly unaware that by referencing the presidency he was acknowledging his own dear leader's regal pretensions.

Republican members of the House actually brought the issue up on the floor of a chamber that should have been focused on the question of how and when to end a war that began as Dick Cheney's "power trip" and George Bush's flight of fancy" but has since turned into an international disaster.

House Republican Conference chair Adam Putnam, of Florida accused Pelosi of displaying "an arrogance of office that just defies common sense."

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, of Missouri, referred to the plane Pelosi would likely use as a "flying Lincoln Bedroom."

North Carolina Congressman Patrick T. McHenry, arguably the most consistently hysterical member of an increasingly hysterical caucus, described the speaker's plane as "Pelosi One," and declared that, "This is a bullet point to a larger value -- Pelosi's abuse of power continues.

McHenry accused the speaker of "exploiting America's armed forces and taxpayers for her own personal convenience."

Yikes! This was the Republican spin machine churning at full throttle.

There was only, er, one problem.

The charge that Pelosi was abusing her position was a complete fabrication.

The speaker did not request a bigger or better plane.

It was the man in charge of making security arrangements for members of the Congress who made the request.

House Sergeant at Arms Bill Livingood has confirmed that, for security reasons, he asked that Pelosi be provided with an Air Force plane that could make the trip from Washington to San Francisco without stopping to refuel.

"The fact that Speaker Pelosi lives in California compelled me to request an aircraft that is capable of making non-stop flights for security purposes, unless such an aircraft is unavailable," Livingood explained in a written statement. "I regret that an issue that is exclusively considered and decided in a security context has evolved into a political issue."

Livingood, who has served as sergeant at arms for 11 years, made similar arrangements for past speakers.

That was something the Republican National Committee and its media echo chamber could have discovered simply by contacting the Office of the Sergeant at Arms.

It is something that Republican Representatives Putnam, Blunt and McHenry should have known.

In fact, if this Congress had nothing else on its agenda, it might well be appropriate to inquire into whether Putnam, Blunt and McHenry used their positions to engage in a deliberate conspiracy to deceive the American people for partisan purposes.

But Congress has a higher calling. It is time to put aside the distractions and get focused on the discussion about war and peace that the administration and its acolytes on Capitol Hill are so determined to avoid.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"